voices from abroad

Chia Buồn August 5, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — Hanh @ 4:02 am

I’m addicted to my beloved Flip video camera (well, technically Kiva’s). I never leave home without it. But there are many instances when I fail to pull it out in time to capture some of the strange and striking things I pass on the street everyday…like the tiny elderly woman I saw yesterday, sitting in a big wire basket with about 100 little chickens at her feet. Not only that, but the basket was strapped to a bicycle being pedaled by a young boy who looked like he was 8!

How many kids can you fit on one xe om?

Riding home from school

But then there are times when I am tired of filming everything…or when I capture a moment on video – and I have no idea what to do with it. When you are interviewing people each day and they trust you with their stories, there’s a great sense of responsibility to represent them with dignity. It can become overwhelming. I had one of these moments yesterday.

Ms. Ha and Ms. Hoa at a borrower meeting

Ms. Ha and Ms. Hoa at a borrower meeting

Chief Credit Officers, Ms. Ha, whom I’ve grown very fond of, and Ms. Hanh (yes, there are many of us here!) gave me instructions to meet them at Nuoc Mam Que Huong for a borrower meeting. This is the area where the popular brand of nuoc mam (fish sauce) is made in Thanh Hoa. I hopped onto a Xe Om (motorbike) and told the driver to take me there. I knew immediately when we had reached the vicinity of our final destination…distinct harsh and pungent whiffs of fermented fish floated through the heavy, humid air. Nuoc mam is a staple of Vietnamese cuisine. I grew up eating many meals with nuoc mam, and still, the scent is too strong for me. I was glad that I had recently caved in and bought a facemask to avoid breathing in the dusty Thanh Hoa air…and in this case, the strong fermented fish odor. If you’ve had nuoc mam at a restaurant and you’re thinking. “hm, it didn’t smell that bad,” think again. Nuoc mam is usually served diluted with water, sugar, lime and perhaps some tiny chilies…delicious! But the original nuoc mam is much stronger in smell, taste and color.

A dish of nuoc mam

A dish of nuoc mam

Ms. Ha flagged me down from the side of the road and led me to a small house with a front room that doubled as a garage. A small white car took up the majority of the space so we huddled on red plastic stools in a corner. Several members in this group sell nuoc mam and shrimp sauce (mam tom), including Ms. Nguyen Thi Thanh. Through the other borrowers, I learned that Ms. Thanh had passed away several months ago. After the meeting ended, Ms. Ha and I walked two blocks to Ms. Thanh’s fish sauce stand and met her daughter, Ms. Huong. She is now managing her mother’s fish sauce stand and will be responsible for paying back the loan from FPW.

Ms. Huong agreed to be filmed for an interview. I pulled out the Flip and began asking my usual questions…
What was the loan money spent on? Purchasing fish sauce for resale at the market.
How much are your profits? One jug of fish sauce brings in a profit of 5,000 VND ($0.18 USD). On a good day, Ms. Huong can sell 10 liters a day for a total profit of 50,000 VND ($3 USD).
How many people are in your family? Ms. Huong has a 6-year-old son and 21-year-old daughter who is currently attending university in Hanoi.

…and so it went….until the final question: what are your dreams for the future?

This is what she says…

Then, suddenly, Ms. Huong’s eyes become soft with sadness. This completely caught me by surprise. Dreams usually generate smiles. She looks away and tells me that her family has encountered much hardship since the passing of her mother. Ms. Huong tells me that her mother received a monthly retirement stipend of 1,300,000 VND ($76 USD). With a strong belief that education would draw their family out of poverty, Ms. Huong’s mother dedicated all of her retirement stipend and some of her profits from the nuoc mam stand to pay for her granddaughter’s university fees. I can see through these words that it is the memory of her mother combined with the family’s current financial struggles that brings tears to Ms. Huong’s eyes. She says that it has been difficult to pay for the children’s school fees with only one salary – she is concerned about their future. I turned off the camera. I could not imagine grieving the loss of a parent and worrying about how the loss will impact family finances at the same time. It must feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders.

Ms. Huong at her mother's market stand

Ms. Huong at her mother's market stand

Chia buồn is a Vietnamese saying that means, “to share sadness.” The words are said in a low tone and the phrase itself sounds sad. In Vietnam, people will offer to share another person’s grief and sadness. Chia buồn. My imagination tells me it’s like splitting up the cloud of sadness into puzzle pieces and distributing them across the universe, until the pain no longer exists. Of course, that is not reality. Despite anyone offering to chia buồn, Ms. Huong’s sadness, just like yours and mine, cannot be easily delegated to others. I suppose then, it’s more like easing the pain by reminding someone that they are not alone and that in the bigger picture, we are all one people, one humanity. Then perhaps, stories that connect us to one another, no matter the distance, help us chia buồn.

on the mekong


2 Responses to “Chia Buồn”

  1. Mike Says:

    Chia buồn is a really beautiful thought. I wonder how life would be if more of us were willing to share another’s pain.

  2. Matt B Says:

    Hi Hanh! Great post again — thanks for the beautiful description you gave for chia buồn. It’s such a new concept that, culturally, I am not accustomed to but that I admire very much!

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